Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is Your Story a Rolling Stone, or a Stagnant Pond?

You know those moments in a book when you want to skim? When your interest is waning so you're flipping down the page, looking for the 'good stuff'?

Do you know how to keep those out of your writing?

I mentioned in my last post that I was disappointed with some of the writing in a book I've been reading over vacation. Well, if nothing else, I can thank the author for giving me a lightbulb moment:

You see, I know I'm a wordy writer. I rely heavily on critique partners to help me identify when my typing fingers outsprint my storytelling. It's taken two and half years of intentional effort and help from professionals to learn to write 'tight' - and I'm still prone to languishing on the page. But even now that I've learned to seek and destroy all those extra words, to eschew modifiers, and avoid repetition - you know, when you say the same thing more than once - I'm still wordy.

Unfortunately, so is the book I'm reading. As as I've mentioned before - finding flaws in someone else's writing can sometimes be the best tool to improve your own. So, based on what I've been reading, here's a few tips I've come up with for keeping the story moving like Mick Jagger:

1. Trust the reader to trust your story.

One of the scenes I read recently that draaaaaged had two royal siblings, walking a palace path to a boat. The POV character was reminded by the setting of several things that had happened in past books. Note: SEVERAL things. Then the brother and sister bantered - a mutual memory bringing them to decide to row across the lake together.

Turns out, the real meat of the scene occurred on the boat and all those words (about 700-1000 of them) had been used to 'realistically' get the characters there.

The problem was, we didn't need to understand why they were on a boat. The author could have placed them there from the very beginning of the scene. I wasn't about to question whether or not it was feasible. And the backstory that was introduced could just as easily been given from the boat.

This feels like a scene version of what many authors do with the beginning of their novels: Pull back just a little too far and offer too much backstory up front, rather than letting those little nuggets of information trickle out as part of the important action.

Don't do it. Put your characters where they need to be, drop in a hint here and there about what their intentions are and let the story do the rest.

2. Don't be afraid to mix scene and sequel

"Scene": The character states an intention, takes steps towards it and is either thwarted, or the action causes unexpected consequences, leading to....

"Sequel": Emotional reaction to what occurred in the scene, rumination / analysis of consequences and identification of new problems, then a decision is made which sparks a new intention. (Hence, sending the character back into 'scene').

Sometimes, consciously or not, authors seem to feel the need to use a single scene to create SCENE and a single scene to depict SEQUEL. When, in actual fact, main characters generally have more than one active intention at any one time. It's more than feasible to combine emotional reaction to a prior scene with forward progress in the next one. In fact, as a reader, I'd say it's encouraged.

Need an example? How about the detective on the case for murder. He's got a lead on a guy who was caught on CCTV just outside the building where the victim was killed. And he's got unidentified DNA from the body.

In a single scene the detective is driving toward the house of the suspect when he gets a call telling him the DNA tests are still preliminary, but one of the possible matches is the detective's brother. This is unexpected and shocking and deposits the detective firmly into the middle of a moral dillemma.

But while the detective is still processing this information, he arrives at the door to the other suspect's apartment.

Now every question he asks, and every answer the suspect gives is going to be viewed with the added filter of the detective's brother potentially being implicated or exonerated, depending on what goes down with this guy. And simultaneously, the detective's feelings about his brother and ethical leanings, will determine how he treats the suspect - and whether, perhaps, his investigation becomes somewhat biased...

Do you see what I mean?

Action and reaction can be combined - and in fact, the scenes generally seem meatier when they are. It won't always be appropriate - but it often will. In short: Don't feel like every important moment has to have it's own bookends.

3. Use critiques to identify how much backstory is actually needed.

You may have noticed in the example I gave for #1, I mentioned that the author used the walk prior to the boat to remind the character of a few incidents and establish the relationship these two characters have.

There were two problems with this:

- Several memories / examples were used to demonstrate a few different facets of the pair's relationship, when I could see a single, well crafted memory successfully offering all the important information and nuance.

- The backstory for these two characters individually is already well established in this book - not to mention the books before that. All the author really needed to do was give these two characters an interaction in the here-and-now that would indicate where their relationship stands NOW. Rather than establishing how they felt about each other in the past...

Backstory should be illuminating - not excavating. Offer as little as is necessary to keep the reader from getting confused. Err on the side of NOT. Let beta readers / critiquers tell you if something isn't clear. Because until the reader knows the character well and is emotionally invested in their journey, they don't really care. And once they do care, they care a lot MORE about what's happening now - and what might happen in the future - than what has already passed.

Dwight V. Swain told me readers don't really care about what they can't change (the past) - except for how it impacts what might still be up for grabs (the future). I think he's right.

Your Turn: Any questions about these tips? Or, what have you observed that could help other writers keep their stories moving instead of stagnating?


  1. Great tips, Aimee. I definitely struggle with too much back story. Something I need to work on for sure!

    I think if you're bored writing something, your readers are going to be bored reading it. It's a good way to know it's time to move on or rethink a scene or drop a plot bomb.

  2. This is a great post, Aimee. I'm going to share it on FB. Wordiness bothers me as well, and backstory is the bane of my existence.

  3. Good insight. Too often writers, from beginning to seasoned, don't trust the readers to understand what they're trying to say in a scene. Readers are a lot brighter than we often give them credit for (heck, they can pick out themes in our writing that we didn't even see), so scenes don't need to be overwritten. Excellent article!

  4. Interesting. I just read Scene and Structure, which mentions "scene and sequel".

    Also, I'm struggling a bit with wordiness. I'm probably going to chainsaw some of the first act away.

  5. A problem of mine was using too many examples to set-up my reader's emotional investment. However, I've now learned, as you pointed out, that I need to re-evaluate my intentions and only use one good example. The reader can sit through one example of memory/backstory. Plus, the more examples I give, the less the reader appreciates what I write, and thus when I *want* them to notice a section, there's the risk they'll be drawn to what doesn't matter.

  6. These are great tips! I actually tend to have the opposite problem when I write--not giving enough information. But in scenes where I start to feel the drag, I'll come back to these to get myself out of it.

  7. Excellent tips! I love what you said about using backstory that will impact the future.